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Growing Cranberries for the Ocean Spray Coop ft Amber Bristow

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Show Notes

Join Nicole and Amber Bristow whose family has been growing cranberries for the Ocean Spray Coop for generations.

What You’ll Learn

  • Growing cranberries in their preferred conditions
  • How to tell when a cranberry is ripe
  • How cranberries taste and preferences have changed
  • Learn where cranberries got their name
  • Common cranberry misconceptions

Our Guest

Amber is a fifth generation Wisconsin cranberry grower and works along side her dad, cousin, and husband – a true family affair! Amber has been working on the marsh full time now for over 4 years.

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    Announcer: 0:01

    Welcome to the Backyard Bounty Podcast from, where we aim to educate and inspire you by sharing practical information to help your homestead thrive. And now, here's your host, Nicole.

    Nicole: 0:16

    Hello, everybody. And thank you so much for joining me for another episode of Backyard Bounty. I'm your host Nicole. And today I'm joined by Amber Bristow, who's a fifth generation cranberry grower and the host of the Farming Forward Podcast and we are going to talk about you guessed it, cranberries. So, Amber, thank you so much for joining me today.

    Amber: 0:36

    Hey, Nicole, thanks for having me.

    Nicole: 0:38

    Absolutely. So, you know, there's not a whole lot of folks out there that grow cranberries, at least not that I've been able to find. So I'm excited to talk cranberries with you. It's sort of different and unique. And and I'm excited to learn more about them. So to jump right in, can you tell me how in the world you got involved in cranberries?

    Amber: 0:59

    Yeah, so like you mentioned, I am fifth generation out on my family's cranberry marsh. We have been in operation since 1918. We come from a line of Irish folks. So when back when we first started, there is a family of Irish boys. And they all work together one day, they just decided that they can't handle working together anymore. So they kind of broke up into different branches of they all stuck with cranberries. But they just kind of all hung around this area. So the town that I live in is just full of cranberry growers. And they kind of all started from this whole Marsh here, which is which is kind of funny, I had to be careful of who I dated in high school because I'm from a really small town, and everyone is related to everyone. So I kind of had to give a background check to my mom, when I started dating someone we like are we related or not. But it's been in my family for five generations. So it's kind of in my blood. And honestly, I think that cranberry juice is running through my veins at this point. So I grew up out here, I shadowed my dad, he married into the family. So he had no idea what was going on when he came out here. But now he's running everything. And I grew up following him around and learning the ropes through him. So then when it was time for me to go off to school to college, I knew I wanted to come back here at some point, I just wasn't sure when that point would be. So I went to school for sports management, because what else does a farmer go to school for? Of course, so I had the dream of working in baseball. So I went and I chased that dream. And that didn't work out. And I had a couple odd jobs following that. And then I kind of realized that, you know, I just I felt like I didn't belong, where I was at, like something was just missing. And I always felt whole when I came back home. And that's kind of when I realized that that's where I needed to be. So I went back and I asked my parents, what they thought about me coming back home to work, and I think my mom was a little bit more hesitant than my dad. But they finally agreed and I've been back home working full time now for just over four years now. So it's a whole family affair. My work long side, my dad, my mom is down here. She kind of runs the office work. I have an older cousin who works out here as well. And my husband, Dan, he just started working out here full time, just about a year ago now. So it's it's been a lot of fun.

    Nicole: 3:23

    So this is your full income. This is how you pay the bills?

    Amber: 3:26

    Yes, this is 100% my full time job. It's a job and then some.

    Nicole: 3:31

    Yeah, I know from following you on Instagram, it looks like you guys are super busy. And I noticed that this time of year being early winter, it looks like you're totally refreshing everything and getting ready for spring. So what does your operation look like? Would you be considered a commercial scale? Or how do you fare in comparison to other cranberry growers?

    Amber: 3:56

    I guess you could say we're commercial scale. So this is all we grow out here. cranberries grow in a very sandy acidic soil. So we can't grow like any other crops out here. So cranberries Is it like this is all that takes out here. So we have 230 acres of just cranberries. And that's fairly large, Wisconsin has kind of cultivated cranberries, a little bit more than like the Massachusetts or New Jersey, they're kind of a little bit smaller, a little bit more spread out. Whereas here in Wisconsin, we have a lot of open area for us to cultivate cranberry. So we really honed in on that we can kind of expand it a little bit more than other states can. So I guess to get to your point, short and simple. We're mostly a commercial and we work with Ocean Spray. So Ocean Spray is a co-op, we send all of our fruit to Ocean Spray to be processed. So we don't do any fresh fruit harvest everything that we grow goes into making juice or sauces or craisins or just any processed item. So our harvest process is a little bit different than that of a fresh fruit cranberry harvest.

    Nicole: 5:04

    And that was actually something I didn't know until stumbling upon your, your profile and such that, that Ocean Spray is a co-op. And it was sort of ironic, not that anybody cares. I don't drink a lot of cranberry juice, but I bought some cranberry juice because I wanted some and then I found your profile. And then I learned that it was a co-op. And I just felt like the stars align. And it was super ironic.

    Nicole: 5:29

    Yeah, it's funny how things work out like that.

    Nicole: 5:31

    How long have you guys been involved with Ocean Spray?

    Amber: 5:33

    Um, so Ocean Spray started back in 1930? I believe. And I think we have been with Ocean Spray pretty much since the beginning, actually. So however long that has been.

    Nicole: 5:46

    Interesting. Just a couple years.

    Amber: 5:48


    Nicole: 5:50

    So where are cranberries native to? I really honestly don't know anything about them at all? Are they native to North America? Do you know?

    Nicole: 5:59

    Yes. They are native to North America. They are one of the few fruits native to North America along with the blueberry the Concord grape, and I think strawberries don't quote me on strawberries. But I know for sure cranberry, blueberry and the Concord grape are all native to North America. So we have cranberries, just kind of growing wild out in our swamps. So we are in a marshy area. So we have a high water table. So there's a lot of water out here. And you can find them just kind of wildly growing out here. They're not exactly the same as what we grow. Like I said, we cultivated well, we found growing in the wild, and we made it so we can grow it on a larger scale. So they come from the same place. But the fruit that we grow is just a little bit different than what you find out in the wild.

    Nicole: 6:49

    So are there different varieties of cranberry, or is there really just kind of one main one, at least for the commercial scale.

    Amber: 6:57

    So there are different varieties, they basically all taste the same. So like our expectations, our fruit has kind of changed and evolved throughout the years. So before like cranberry juice was ever a thing, we just had fresh fruit, right. So that's kind of like the main variety. And then from there, like when our preferences started to evolve, and we needed cranberries for different products, we were able to make hybrids that came from this one variety. So we do have a wide variety of fruit now, for different purposes. So like with juice, we needed kind of like a smaller kind of a sturdier fruit. And now like with craisins, or like sweetened dried cranberries, we need a large fruit with a lot of flesh and kind of like a thinner skin. So we are able to cross pollinate different varieties to create like the prime fruit, if that makes sense. So they all like I said they all taste the same, they just differ in like size, density, and kind of the big thing for us is they're readyness rate. So we have early varieties that we can harvest a little bit earlier in the year, our harvest takes place September through the end of October. So we have a variety that kind of matures a little bit earlier. So we can harvest that in the middle of September. And then we kind of have like a standard variety that we can start harvesting the beginning of October. And then we have a late variety that takes a little bit more time. And we harvest that in the end of October. So the way that we judge when it's ready to harvest is we look at the color of the fruit like Ocean Spray will judge our fruit based off of their color. So, cranberries are kind of like apples in the sense where they need cold weather to turn that dark red color that you're used to. So if you crack a cranberry open and look inside, you'll find the seeds. And that's how we tell is if you look at the seed, so it doesn't really have anything to do with the color necessarily some of that fruit that you see that starts out white, they haven't been exposed to the cold weather to turn them that dark red. So while the dark red fruit is aesthetically pleasing, it's nice to look at that doesn't necessarily determine if it's ripe or not.

    Nicole: 9:05

    I guess that makes sense as to why they grow in the northern regions if they need to be exposed to cold like that. So can you kind of tell me more about just where cranberries like to grow in general, I know that you mentioned the sandy and acidic soil and the colder temperatures and the marshes I guess. But what other kind of requirements do they have?

    Amber: 9:27

    Yeah, so that's pretty much their basic requirements as we prefer to sandy acidic soil because we are in a marshy area. We do have a lot of water and cranberries do need a lot of water to grow. They aren't grown in water. A lot of people think that they do because that's kind of all you see on TV right is just that image of the cranberries floating in water, but they don't actually grow in water. They are a low running vine that grows in sand, so no standing water. And we do use a lot of water throughout the growing season just to keep them hydrated. So they are grown in what we call a cranberry bed. So the best way that I can describe this is it's like a rectangle that's kind of sunk down in the ground. So we have dams that run alongside this bed, and it's a couple feet below, like ground level, so it's closer to water. And we just kind of dig that rectangle out so it's nice and flat. And then we plant the cranberries on top of the sand, so that the bottom, like where the roots grow is closest to the water. And then alongside this bed, there's a ditch. And then when we do need to use water, you know, we can keep water in those ditches to keep the bottom of the cranberry vines damp. So we use that kind of as an irrigation. But then in the summer months, or like in the spring months, we have irrigation pipe setup in these beds. So typical bed size for us is about like two acres, if you can imagine that. So we have irrigation pipe setup in these beds, and every single bed and then irrigation pumps, we can turn on and off remotely, which is nice. And we have temperature probes placed throughout the entire Marsh, we can program those probes. So if we get to a temperature that gets too cold, so like in the springtime, when we're under like frost warnings or something, we can program that thermometer to be set at a certain temperature. And if it gets below that certain temperature, that radio will give us a call on our cell phones and say, you know, I'm cold start the engines up. So then we can turn on our irrigation pumps. And then that running irrigation water helps protect the vines from frost damage so that running water will keep any frost from sticking to the developing buds to kind of protect the plant in general. And we also use that in the summer to just irrigate. And then also in the fall again, when it starts to get cold before the fruit is harvested. We'll run that again for frost protection to help protect the fruit and then the bugs that are developing for the following year. So cranberry is a perennial plant, it doesn't have to be replanted every single year. They do reproduce. We have some vines here that are over 60 years old, I've heard of some that have been producing for over 100 years, it just kind of depends on the variety, and how it's up kept, I guess. So they need a lot of water, they need the cold temperatures, they need kind of all four seasons to grow and go through their whole cycle. So in the winter months, it kind of like as soon as they're harvested, the vines go dormant, they just kind of shut down for the winter. And then once it starts to warm back up in the spring, they'll start to kind of wake up and continue their growth. And yeah, water, the sandy soil acidic soil, and all four seasons is kind of like the basic requirements for cranberries.

    Nicole: 12:44

    And I think it's funny that you mentioned that they don't actually grow in the water, because I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that I didn't know that until recently. I didn't. That's how you harvest them. I thought that they were just this floaty swap berry. And, and not there just a regular plant.

    Amber: 13:03

    Yeah, that's kind of the main reason why I started my Instagram page. You know, I would tell people that I'm a cranberry grower, and even people that live in the same town as me, like we're known for cranberries. But they just assumed I walked around in water all day. And you know, I was just kind of getting sick of people asking me like, what's it like working in water. And you know, there's not a lot of cranberry advocates out there on social media. And I kind of saw an opportunity. I was like, You know what, I'm out here, I've got a phone, I can do this, why not start sharing my life out here and showing people what cranberries look like out of harvests and how cool it is and how unique our industry is. And my main goal in life now is just to educate people that cranberries don't grow in water. That's kind of if I could just preach that to everyone. If he could all just spread that word that cranberries don't grow in water, I will feel very accomplished.

    Nicole: 13:55

    Well, that makes me feel a little bit better about my lack of understanding of cranberries myself.

    Amber: 14:01

    Yeah, you're not alone.

    Nicole: 14:04

    So you mentioned that some of those vines have been growing for for decades. Do you guys propagate your own? Or do you source them? Or how does that work?

    Amber: 14:14

    Yeah so if we're bringing in a new variety, the best way I can describe it is like a dealer. So there are people that are approved by Ocean Spray to kind of breed cranberry vines. So thankfully we have a grower that lives near us who does this and we can go to his Marsh and look at new varieties that he has coming in. And we can kind of pick and choose what we want out here. So when we do renovations every year, we don't do a whole lot at one time just because it is a lot of work. And it is kind of expensive. So like right now we're renovating probably like nine acres for the 2021 season. So we're not purchasing any new varieties for the following year. But instead what we can do when it is time to plant in the spring, like around May, we will go to a variety that we do like that we have on hand and we can go out with it's pretty much just like a big lawn mower. And we go right out into those vines, and we can mow the vines kind of almost right down to the ground. And then we'll come in with a hay baler. And we'll run over those vines and put them into just like a big hay bale. And then we save those bales of vines. And then after we bring in like fresh, clean sand to the renovated beds, and level everything back out, we put in drain tile, we get our irrigation all set up. And then once we have everything else set to go on there, we'll go with those bales of vines. And we'll just kind of shake those vines right on top of the sand. And then once we have like a nice layer not too thick, not too thin, we'll come in with a disker. And we'll drive over top those vines and disc them right into the sand we'll run our irrigation over that will give them a lot of fertilizer throughout the spring and summer months, and those vine trimmings will start to regrow just as they are. And then the bed that we mowed to get those wind clippings, they will also continue to grow. It's kind of just like giving them a good haircut, it'll just kind of regrow from what they have. So they already have established roots, they will continue to grow, and the vines will just continue to grow and develop. And then those vines will be able to produce fruit, usually the first year is all about growth and establishing roots. The following year, we'll get a little bit of a crop. But usually the second and third year, we have a sizable crop that we can actually get a decent harvest off of so after the third year, it should be up to like its full potential. And we can just, you know, go on our merry way. So that's kind of why we don't like to renovate and do a whole bunch at once, just because we are losing that much crop every single year. We only want to be out a couple acres at a time, if that makes sense.

    Nicole: 16:59

    Yeah, that makes sense. And that's interesting that they seem relatively easy to propagate anyways. That's helpful, I suppose. I had to just Google while while I'm talking to you here, cranberry flower because I did not know what those look like. And those are quite pretty. They sort of look like a pink borage flower.

    Amber: 17:20

    Yeah. So actually, that's how the cranberry got its name is from the blossom. So it looks like the head of a Sandhill Crane. So it was the Craneberry. And then just over time, it just kind of turned into the cranberry.

    Nicole: 17:33

    Oh how interesting. That's probably the most interesting cranberry fact I've learned yet. I have a soft spot for birds. So that might just be a thing that I like and nobody else cares. But that's okay. So how are cranberries pollinated? Are they like wind pollinated or from a pollinating insect? And what kind of pests or diseases do they have, if any.

    Amber: 17:59

    So up until a couple years ago, we just kind of relied on the wind for pollination. But then we started to introduce honeybees to help us pollinate during the bloom. And we saw a significant increase in our crop, not only for that year, but also the following year. So we rent honeybees for a couple of months during the bloom season. And we we let them do their thing. And I fell in love with that. Like, I just think that's so cool. So I worked with the University of Wisconsin, we have an extension program. So scientists that work with the UW program. They do a lot of research with cranberries, and they wanted to start introducing growers to native pollinator gardens. So I worked with a scientist with UW program, and they set me up with a pack of seeds that will attract native pollinators in our area. So like bumblebees, butterflies, hummingbirds, that kind of thing. So I planted a quarter acre pollinator garden on the marsh. That's kind of like my baby. That was my first big project that I kind of got to run and do by myself when I first started out here, so that's been a lot of fun to see like the different flowers that come up and just all of the wildlife that surrounds that in the spring and summer months. So now that we have the honeybees out here we're also trying to rent bumblebees to kind of see if our numbers will increase using both Bumble and honeybees because they kind of both have different pollinating techniques. So like a honey bee, when they pollinate, they just land and they collect nectar from the fruit so they're there to take from the plant basically, and they just kind of like hover. They don't necessarily get as deep into the flower as a bumblebee does. So I'm just nerding out on bees right now but like bumblebees, when they attach to the blossom of the cranberry, they're able to dislocate their wings and just vibrate to collect all that pollen, and that lands on their fur. So they're actually taking way more pollen from the blossom than a honeybee can because they don't collect all that pollen like a bumblebee does. So then the bumblebee when they fly away, like all that extra pollen is falling off of them. So we're trying to see if the crops will increase in size with both types of pollinators or how they kind of work alongside each other, that kind of thing. Long story short, again, that's kind of what we do for pollination, we we bring in bees, we rent them through a bee farmer. And they come and collect the bees when we're done with them. And they take them to the next farm that needs pollination help. And so sometimes, they'll be coming from like, almonds out in California, and then they'll be coming here to Wisconsin, and they're going back out to like Washington for apples or something like these are well traveled bees. So that's always fun. That's kind of like the highlight of my summers when the bees are here. But as far as like pests and diseases ago, because we are in a in a wet area, we do have bugs, and most of them, we can treat pretty easily. So we have what's called an integrated pest management team come out, and they kind of keep an eye on all the pests for us. And if they are kind of getting out of hand, they'll let us know what products we can apply during different stages of the growing season. So if it gets too close to harvest, and we have a bug problem, we might not be able to apply certain products that we could earlier in the season just because of like the retention time on things. And obviously, we want to produce the best product possible for the consumer. And we don't want to have those times too close to when we harvest just for any lingering residue or anything. So they help us a lot with our application process and in when to apply and what to apply at certain times, which is really great. It takes a lot of pressure off of us. But as far as disease goes, we don't knock on wood, have too many diseases like we don't have, we won't have like a potato famine or anything like we don't have that type of disease that can wipe out our entire crop. Kind of like our main disease is like weeds, that's kind of like what we have to deal with a lot weeds are very pesky out here. Because again, it's what and they like to grow and sand. So there's a couple of bugs and weeds. That's kind of all you have to deal with, which is nice.

    Nicole: 22:32

    And how do you manage the weeds? Is it just good old labor out there pulling them? Or do you have something unique and creative for that?

    Amber: 22:42

    Yeah, a lot of it is, is manual labor. So like when I was in high school, that was my job was to pull weeds, which was not the best, but my parents told me it would build character. And that's all I'm gonna say about that.

    Nicole: 22:59

    Fair enough. I don't I hate pulling weeds. I don't know anybody that likes pulling weeds really. But so obviously, cranberries are more of kind of a high volume thing. But is this something that can be grown on a smaller scale for somebody that just wants to give it a whirl? Or wants just a smaller crop? Or is this something that kind of needs to be done on a larger scale?

    Amber: 23:24

    Yeah, you know, I get that question a lot. I don't, and I don't want to sound rude. So I'm sorry if it comes across that way. But this isn't really something that you can grow in your backyard, it does have to be done on a larger scale, because you do need a lot of water. And if you did it on a small scale, I don't think you would produce a large enough crop that you could do anything with you like you might be able to get, you know enough for like cranberry sauce or something. But unless you have like a lot of area or, you know, like five to 10 acres, I don't think it would be worth your time and effort because they are such a high maintenance thing. And it's not like you can kind of set them and forget them. Like you could with a lot of other backyard crops. So in my personal opinion, I don't think it would be worth it to do is like a small scale thing. It does require a lot of time and effort and year round care.

    Nicole: 24:18

    Do you happen to know? Like, how much volume or pounds or I don't know how you measure cranberries that you're able to harvest per acre of cranberry Marsh? I don't know is that the is that the proper term?

    Amber: 24:33

    Yeah, yeah. Um, so we measure in barrels, which is 100 pounds. So roughly, I think like the state average is about 200 barrels an acre. So that's that's quite a bit of fruit.

    Nicole: 24:49

    Yeah, that is I guess that's probably more than I would have assumed but that's, that is quite a bit.

    Amber: 24:56

    It keeps us busy.

    Nicole: 24:57

    Do you have any other cranberries misconceptions or things like them not growing and water that you want people to know?

    Amber: 25:06

    Um, yeah, I think that kind of just, you know, like you said cranberries not growing in water is probably the biggest misconception. The fact that they are a perennial plant, I guess is another one that they are a low running vine. So they're kind of, I guess, a woody vine. So it's not necessarily like a grape vine. They are low running, but they do get pretty thick, if that makes sense. So I compare it to like walking on a shag carpet, in most cases, so they are pretty thick and dense. And like the leaves from the vines act as a canopy to protect the fruit when they are growing. So they it protects them from you know, the weather, with winds, rain, hail, especially is a big one. And walking on them, you can walk right out there and not crush the berries. So those vines are a really great canopy and a protector for the fruit that hang below. So on on one vine, if you were to pull like an entire v`ine up out of the ground, you could have anywhere from two to six berries growing off of one single vine operate. So there is quite a bit of fruit out there. Um, and you can walk out there, you don't need hip boots, there's no water outside of harvest. And yeah, I guess, I guess that they're just a low running vine is kind of like another big misconception.

    Nicole: 26:30

    So I assume since you said you can just walk on them that they they don't have any sort of thorns or pricklies. I guess that was an assumption because you said they were similar to blueberries and things. But in my mind, for some reason cranberry bushes had thorns. And so maybe I was wrong.

    Amber: 26:48

    Nope. Thankfully, not the way that you can describe a vine. If I say are running vine. Does that make sense? Like, yeah, the roots are established in the ground. And then there's just kind of like one string of vine that grows out from that. And then it just has leaves in the fruit. So because they do grow in sand, like the running part of the vine can establish new roots, we can develop like new upright growth that produces the fruit. So the upright from the original vine is what grows the fruit. Does that make sense?

    Nicole: 27:23

    Yeah, that makes sense.

    Amber: 27:24

    That's all it is. It's just kind of like a vine with little uprights that grows off of it. That's that's all that it consists of basically.

    Nicole: 27:31

    Yeah, that makes sense. So yeah, How interesting. So we've mentioned a few times that you have your Instagram and then also have your podcast. So can you tell us where we can follow along on your cranberry adventures?

    Amber: 27:45

    Yeah, so you can follow me on Instagram is kind of my main platform. I'm over at Cranberry Chats. I'm also on Facebook a little bit. Again, that's Cranberry Chats. And then my podcast is called Forward Farming. And I co-host that with a Wisconsin dairy farmer. And her name is Becca. And we just kind of talk about being women in agriculture being female farmers, what life is like here in Wisconsin, and we talk about you know, everything from farming, to hunting to, Becca has kids, and just a lot of odds and ends in between. So between podcasting and Instagram and being a cranberry grower, my schedule is pretty full. But it's a lot of fun.

    Nicole: 28:30

    You're definitely busy, that's for sure. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today, especially since you are so busy. And you've got so much going on and and so thank you so much for sharing your story of cranberries with me today.

    Amber: 28:46

    Yeah, of course. Anyway, to get the good word about cranberries out is a good day in my book.

    Nicole: 28:51

    Absolutely. Well, I'm sure the people here will love to hear it because I found it incredibly interesting. So thank you again.

    Amber: 28:58

    Well, thanks for having me.

    Nicole: 28:59

    And if you'd like to sign up for new episode alerts, submit a question for me to answer on the show and so much more. Please text the word podcast to 719-292-3207 or visit Again, that's podcast to 719-292-3207 or Thank you so much for joining me and I'll see you again next week.

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